wearing long black coats and hats emerge as if by conjure from an opening in the floor. They slowly climb up what is now recognizable as a staircase. They are carrying guns close to their bodies. They are heavy with guns and dark intentions. The guns have become coup sticks, game sticks, story sticks, magic sticks. In some peculiar way the guns merge with their bones, their blood, represent the essence of all their nightmare expectations.
They have surfaced in a bank and seem to glide effortlessly across the slick marble floor. They are going to show their guns to the tellers and bank officers partly out of a need to enact an archetypal ritual known as bank robbery. Part of an even deeper need to become both heroes and villains at the exact same moment. And, the reason for this is that the ritual calls for it, demands it, and that kind of ritual simply cannot be denied. Ever. To deny it would sooner or later bring on the fevers, the tumors, the terrors, and death.
The scene that I have just described is from Michael Mann’s film PUBLIC ENEMIES. And, it is also a scene that I have played and replayed in my imagination since I wrote The Name Is Dillinger in a migraine pounding frenzy back in 1976. The number of men robbing that bank may vary, the bank may change in description, the sequence of events may be shuffled and reshuffled to fit the circumstances, but Dillinger is always there. Dillinger will always be there. He is required to be there. He is the there of bank robbery because this is his story and no matter how many times it is re enacted in HIGH SIERRA, John Milius’ DILLINGER, WHITE HEAT, or PUBLIC ENEMIES, it is still derived from the primal outlaw story of america. And, the primal outlaw story of america is the one that keeps getting pushed back and down into the collective american id where all the homegrown furies live. Where everything outlaw has been denied almost from the very beginning.
And, it really doesn’t matter how the story plays out in that bank. Maybe the bank robbers will die Dalton brothers’ style in one spectacular shootout or maybe they will make it out of that bank that town the country the way Steve McQueen and Ali McGraw did in THE GETAWAY. One thing you can count on is that even the violent death of an outlaw is not the end of him, contrary to all of Hoover’s passionate puritan dreams. The most interesting and perplexing aspect of america is its peculiarly dark and abiding love for its outlaw heroes. Especially the ones that are so complicated, the ones whose fates are intertwined with money and love and power and desire and fame and violence and death. Death has to be in there somewhere just as it had to be in there for Jay Gatsby, just as it had to be in there for Pike Bishop, just as it had to be in there for Billy the Kid, just as it had to be in there for Butch Cassidy, just as it had to be in there for Cody Jarrett, just as it had to be in there for John Dillinger.
And, I’m sitting through PUBLIC ENEMIES for the umpteenth time, again, because I want to see Johnny Depp and those other two bank robbers climb that staircase. They appear to be floating up out of that floor like phantoms, their long black coats remind me of the dusters the James Gang wore in THE LONG RIDERS. On one level they are outlaws. On another they are lethal metaphors that tease us toward a darker understanding of who we all are, of who we all dream we could be.
This is the way that Dillinger appeared to me in 1976. He broke through those floorboards fully formed as a character, as a force, as an apparition, as a dream, as a man. His voice ached to be pried my mouth, to be broken out of my mouth, to be clawed out of my mouth, ached all the way back into my throat, ached in my spit and ached in my dreams. And, he became a dark presence that filled my shadow with the black water of all of his dreams.
I don’t know exactly where he came from. I may have clicked an old Edgemaster switchblade open just one too many times and something like his spirit poured out. Or, I may have played with an old break open Smith and Wesson 32 a little more than I should have and his soul poured out of the barrel along with some rust and dirt flecks. But, once he came out there was no shoving him back in. His darkness infiltrated me, his darkness found my darkness and began to insinuate itself into whatever I wrote.
If Carl Jung is right and there is some kind of primal substratum where all our dreams originate going back to the very beginning, then maybe there is also a psychic ocean where all our archetypal characters come from as well. If you believe the first idea, then you should also seriously consider the second one, too. Maybe it’s possible that Hamlet knew Ahab before Shakespeare or Melville drank from that enormous ocean of archetypal dreams. And. maybe it’s possible that Milton’s Satan and McCarthy’s Judge Holden were twins swimming around in the psychic slime of Cain’s best fantasies. And, maybe it’s also possible that John Dillinger and Benya Krik joined forces to rob the bank of all banks before taking off for Buenos Aires or Paris or just simply for parts unknown. And, to extend this beautiful travesty just one more time. Maybe Babel and I had knocked back the best of all possible vodkas before the Cheka even realized that we had exit visas and were already on the next plane to Lisbon.
When Dillinger came out from under the floor of my study I was more than ready. When Dillinger blew his way out from under the floorboards of america I had the dream car which was also the getaway car revved and waiting. The moment Dillinger appeared in The Name Is Dillinger he became one of the major metaphors for Outlaw Poetry. Like Tony Moffeit’s Billy the Kid, DILLINGER is a force to be reckoned with, a dangerous longing, a homicidal wet dream. There are no figures in contemporary american mainstream poetry going all the way back to THE WASTE LAND and coming all the way forward to the present time that are the equal of Dillinger in vision in scope in depth in dreamscape in ambition. And, since 1985 only BLOOD MERIDIAN’s Judge Holden can claim that honor and BLOOD MERIDIAN is a novel.
When I first started to write DILLINGER back in the seventies, I realized even then that what I was doing in poetry was the symbolic equivalent of bank robbery. What I wanted to do and still want to do is make DILLINGER a primal act of robbery and murder. Symbolic robbery symbolic murder, but crime kicked to the psychic max. Up until then writing a poem meant just writing a poem. When Eliot wrote THE WASTE LAND it was still just a poem. Forget the idea that Eliot really was trying to rewire the whole perception of what a poem and what consciousness in poetry were all about. When Pound was writing THE CANTOS it was also still just a poem. Forget the idea that he was really trying to reinvent the history of his dreams. But, no one, not even Ed Dorn had tried to reinvent poetry as bank robbery, which is the ultimate act of an Outlaw Poet.
The one idea to keep in mind is that this is not poetry about bank robbery. This isn’t the stuff of the pulps. This is poetry conceived as a criminal act. This is poetry that drags you bleeding into the raw wounded moment of the crime itself and then exhilaratingly pulls you back out. Baudelaire would have loved it. Rimbaud would have grabbed a machine gun so he could try to kill the moon. Dorn would have gone in search of those leather encased hands. I wanted to write a poem that was so irresistibly criminal, so hypnotically violent, so tantalizingly mythical, and so absolutely american that it couldn’t be neglected or denied even while there were many who just simply wished it would go away.
There is a line in PUBLIC ENEMIES which really applies to Outlaw Poetry as much as it is a driving force behind Dillinger’s frenzy. Johnny Depp as Dillinger tells Marion Cotillard as Billie Frechette, “I want it all and I want it now.” The way that Depp is talking is both low key and electric. What he says in this film is what Dillinger has known for always and what I realized when I began to write DILLINGER. And, this line just doesn’t apply to the character of Dillinger. It is the foundational force for a kind of poet and a kind of poetry that has been denied, neglected, forgotten and marginalized for a very long time. Like Dillinger, Outlaw Poetry has broken out of the national id and is now loose in the culture. It is loose and floating and dangerous.
And, it wants it all and it wants it now.